Saturday, 25 July 2015


Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Victoria Concert Hall
Thursday (23 July 2015)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 25 July 2015 with the title "SSO returns to chamber music roots".

Moving back to Victoria Concert Hall to perform a pair of concerts, the Singapore Symphony Orchestra could be said to have returned to its chamber music roots. It was in 1979 when the fledgling outfit comprising 41 musicians took on the works of Beethoven and Schubert in its inaugural concerts. This evening, the concert's first half conducted by Music Director Shui Lan featured a work for wind ensemble and another for just strings.

Richard Strauss' youthful Serenade Op.7 was scored for 13 instruments: two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, three bassoons and four French horns. Yet the sound generated by these few musicians was voluminous, filling the reverberant hall with an ardent bluster. Thank goodness the playing was immaculate and crisp for this short single-movement piece, and muddiness in resonance was largely avoided.

It appears that the hall favours the strings, which have a mellower and soothing timbre. Thus in Arnold Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), where the original sextet was expanded to a large body of strings including double basses, the overall effect was closer to perfection. The music is programmatic, narrating the intense feelings of a man and woman who share a dark private secret in the deep of night.

The build-up from quiet calm to wracking emotional turmoil was a gradual one, and even if the opening lacked a degree of mystery, the climaxes were palpably vivid. The larger group of strings was also ideally balanced with the small quartet group, manned by violinists Igor Yuzefovich and Zhou Qi, violist Zhang Manchin and cellist Ng Pei-Sian.

Shui's firm guiding hand ensured that the catharsis was for real, and the subsequent transformation from agony to acceptance provided the music's defining moments. What was that dark secret anyway? The child the woman was bearing was from another man's seed. True love thus reigned in that transfigured night.    

Despite its pretensions to virtuosity, Robert Schumann's Piano Concerto in A minor is in effect chamber music writ large. Russian pianist Nikolai Demidenko, well known for his Rachmaninov and Prokofiev concerto performances, gave an intimate and anti-histrionic reading. Sporting eye-glasses, seated very low and near the keyboard, his stance was not of self-effacement but rather coming to grips to the work's very personal message.

His sensitive playing blended with the orchestra like a snug hand and glove. This was nowhere more apparent than in the slender 2nd movement's Intermezzo, where repartee between pianist and ensemble was deliciously kept up until the finale's energetic romp. Here Demidenko's much-vaunted technique more than held up to scrutiny, with the tricky syncopations and fast slightly off-kilter waltz dancing its way to a brilliant conclusion.

His two encores were equally delightful, with rare concert appearances of waltzes from Chopin's Op.64 set, including the Minute Waltz, which now really sounds like a little dog (Valse du petit chien was Chopin's own title for it) chasing its tail.    

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